Veterinarian Q & A: Understanding Cystitis

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Dr. Alexis Stambaugh and her beloved cat, Cali

Cystitis is an uncomfortable illness that is commonly found in cats. To better understand this condition, we asked Alexis Stambaugh, DVM, of North Country Veterinary Services in central New York, to comment on its causes and symptoms.

Q.  What does ‘Cystitis/ mean?
A.  Literally put, ‘Cystitis’ means inflammation of the bladder. This broad term can encompass many very different diseases in cats.

Some cats get simple bladder infections that improve with antibiotics. Other cats develop stones irritating the bladder, which either are removed surgically or sometimes can be dissolved with special diets.  Tumors can even grow in the bladder, causing inflammation and chronic or recurrent infections.  Cystitis is found in ‘blocked’ cats that get urethral obstructions and become a medical emergency. ‘Feline Idiopathic Cystitis’ (FIC) in cats might be a response to stress or sometimes for no apparent cause.

Q.  What symptoms should I watch for?
A.  The signs of all of these conditions are pretty similar: straining to urinate, urinating in frequent and small amounts (called pollakiuria), blood in the urine, licking the urethral opening, and urinating in unusual places, sometimes right in front of you.  Often these afflicted cats are generally healthy and will eat, drink and act well.  The exception to this is having a urethral obstruction. Urethral obstructions cause straining, but no urine is produced, and your cat can be very sick.

Q.  When is it an emergency?
A.  Most cystitis conditions can wait until your veterinarian’s office is open.  However, a ‘blocked cat’ or urethral obstruction is an emergency.  Urethral obstructions are often caused by crystals or sand that builds up in the bladder until it tries to pass through the urethra.  A plug with mucus is created, stopping flow of urine in the urethra.  Male cats have a stricture in their penis where the plug often gets stuck.  This is a common cause of urethral obstruction, but anything that blocks the flow of urine will produce the same result.

Cats strain and strain (often anywhere they can), they can act anxious or cry, wandering around, or — when it gets worse — they may not want to eat or move around at all.  Some cats vomit.  If you see your male cat straining to urinate but not producing urine, contact your veterinarian immediately.

While some cats are more susceptible than others, obstructions can often be prevented by keeping your cat on a diet that keeps the urine acidic and increases moisture consumption.  Ask your veterinarian which diets they recommend to prevent this problem.

Q.  What can be done when nothing seems to help?
A.  If your veterinarian has ruled out stones, infection and other causes of cystitis but your cat continues to strain, urinate inappropriately and urine continues to be bloody, he may have FIC.  By definition, the cause of FIC is not known, but there are several theories. This condition has been shown to be linked with environmental stress, and can often resolve itself within a few weeks.  It is more common in young cats and frequency of episodes seems to decrease with age.

Sometimes environmental stresses are obvious: construction, a new pet or baby or other major changes in a cat’s life.  Other stresses might not be as obvious: another pet preventing a cat from getting to the litter box, a cat crying outside, or many other subtle things that we don’t see but that mean a great deal to your cat.

Q.  How can I decrease environmental stress?
A.  Owners can try to decrease stresses by removing the obvious ones, or by trying to make an environment calmer and more accommodating.  Here are a few tips:

  • Make certain there are hiding places where he can escape from his environment and no one can bother him.  There should be access to different places: warm, cold, sunny and dark.
  • Scratching posts or boards might help, as could different toys (not the same ones all the time).
  • Play spaces that he can choose should always be available. Cats often appreciate the option to climb.
  • Consistency in food is helpful. If it is necessary to switch diets, make the change gradually over the course of weeks.
  • A calming cat pheromone, such as Feliway, can be sprayed in an area or used as a wall plugin to help make cats feel safe and secure.
  • Increase fluids. Sometimes it’s not enough to always have clean water readily available.  There are some things we can do to try to get our cat to drink more, such as a watering fountain (or other running water) to help stimulate your cat to drink.  Cats are attracted to moving water.
  • Wet food is another good source of water, since it can contain approximately 80% moisture.

The most important thing is to make certain to recognize signs early, and work with your veterinarian to determine which of the many causes of cystitis might be affecting your cat.

Dr. Stambaugh earned both her B.S. in Animal Science and her D.V.M. in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. She works in the two North Country Veterinary Services Clinics (one in Pulaski and the other in Oswego), as well as with large animals on the road. She enjoys all aspects of mixed animal practice but has a particular fondness for small animal surgery and working with alpacas and small ruminants. Dr. Stambaugh and her fiancé have three cats and a Husky mix dog.

For more information on Dr. Stambaugh and North Country Veterinary Services, visit: http://www.northcountryvet.com

Cystitis is covered under CFA Pet Healthcare Illness Plans and we see many claims for this disease. Plan ahead and protect your cat against this and many other unexpected illnesses and accidents. We offer several affordable plans for every budget and also offer preventive options, as well as a spay/neuter option. For more information, visit: www.cfaphp.com or call toll free at 877.232.4441. You’ll be glad you did!
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